Anthology films face an inherent weakness. Their quality is often as inconsistent as the different films’ tones; their unpredictability often becomes a liability. But sometimes they’re a revelation, allowing us to directly compare different approaches to similar material, or giving us a better grasp of a particular moment in filmmaking. Pearls of the Deep, a film by Jiří Menzel, Jan Němec, Evald Schorm, Jaromil Jireš, and Daisies’ Vera Chytilová, falls into the latter category, providing an introduction to the early stages of the Czech New Wave. As its five shorts are each based on short stories by Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal, the stories have a similarity in tone and topic that allows us to see all the more clearly the filmmakers’ stylistic differences.
A world-weary irony dominates the stories: in the first film, Menzel’s “Mr. Baltazar’s Death,” a middle-aged couple and the woman’s father attend a motorcycle race, barely acknowledging the death of one of the racers because they are so involved in trading stories of previous races; in Němec’s “The Imposters,” two men in a nursing home invent grandiose stories about their lives, for which embellishments a doctor demeans them even as he lies about his patients’ prognoses; in Schorm’s “The House of Joy”—the only film in color—representatives of Czech National Insurance find themselves unable to communicate with the people; Chytilová’s “At the World Cafeteria” gives us a diner where a wedding and a suicide happen simultaneously without anyone from either half of the story taking much notice of the other; and in Jireš’s “Romance,” a young, white Czech boy is pulled along on a whirlwind romance with a young Gypsy girl, forgetting to ever ask her name.
The underlying humor of these stories—light in the sense that they hardly make one guffaw, but dark in that they often deal with death and desperation—is one thing that might distinguish the Czech New Wave from contemporaneous film movements. Truffaut and Godard both had a sense of humor, but on the whole, the French New Wave was rather serious-minded. One could make the same observation of the New German Cinema, whose films’ titles [e.g., Part-time Work of a Domestic Slave, Aguirre: The Wrath of God, Hitler: A Film From Germany] speak for themselves.
The Czech New Wave, on the other hand, often sought humor in the mad political situation it found itself in. Milos Forman’s The Fireman’s Ball  is among the sharpest political satires of midcentury cinema, and this week’s film, Daisies, distinguishes itself from other experimental films precisely by being genuinely funny, with an emphasis on fun. So, too, is Pearls of the Deep’s formal novelty balanced by a healthy sense of humor. The funniest short is undoubtedly “House of Joy,” in which two National Insurance agents visit a deranged farmer who has covered his house with vibrant, childlike renditions of classical Christian mythology. The hypocrisy of the state, who either can’t communicate with the proletariat or becomes smitten with an idealized image of him, is set against the hypocrisy of the ignorant prole, whose religious zealotry is matched only by his passion for murdering goats.
Chytilová’s short is far removed from her work in Daisies—it is something much closer to a narrative film—but it shows her interest in distinctly cinematic effects, abrupt cutaways, and absurd juxtapositions. As a raucous wedding reception is taking place on the top floor of the World’s Cafeteria, the woman behind the counter discovers a body hanging in the women’s restroom. She lifts the body out of the bathroom and ushers the customers out of the crowded cafe, but even as the patrons below stand at the window and gawk at the proceedings, the wedding continues above unabated. The effect, ultimately, is less humorous than it is disorienting; nobody’s behavior seems to quite match the situation, and the film delights in making us question what is really going on. Hrabal’s story is here given a distinctly surrealistic bent, reminiscent of films like Luis Bunuel’s The Exterminating Angel .
The other element that unites these films is their focus on everyday people—on the peccadilloes and absurdities of the normie, so to speak. The protagonists, for all their eccentricities, are not remarkable people in terms of class, appearance, or ability, but are the weirdos you live with everyday. Or rather, they’re the weirdos you yourself are. If Pearls of the Deep can be considered a manifesto of the Czech New Wave, perhaps this profoundly humanist—and not a little bit political—sentiment should be the main takeaway.